Scripps SURF program exposes undergrads to hands-on research to encourage them to pursue careers in ocean and earth sciences
Growing up, Brittany Hailey always wanted to be a tornado chaser.
A Memphis native and a major in meteorology at Jackson State University in Mississippi, she figured studying tornadoes and hurricanes would be the life for her.
On Aug. 22, though, she was in a beachside cottage in La Jolla, Calif. presenting her research poster “The Effect of Santa Ana Winds and Wildfires in California and their Socio-Economic Impacts.” Her collaborator was Alexander Gershunov, a climate scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, who specializes in heat wave research.
“I’d never even heard of Santa Ana winds before coming here,” Hailey said.
Now Hailey has a broadened interest in climate thanks to an experience she says “opened my eyes to a whole other part of meteorology.” She is interested in raising awareness about climate change in Mississippi, where the subject is seldom discussed though that state faces a greater threat from sea-level rise than most others, said Gershunov, who has little doubt she’ll be an effective educator.
“With minimal supervision, she did a really nice project here,” Gershunov said. “Not only was she able to come up with new results but she presented them really well.”
The results of more than a dozen divergent experiences were on display at Scripps’s Martin Johnson House, as college students from around the country presented the work they did in the 10-week Scripps Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. SURF is one of several Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation. This year, the NSF supported 10 SURF student fellowships, said Scripps academic coordinator Jane Teranes. After receiving 450 applications, Scripps researchers managed to support another nine fellowships through various means for the 2013 edition of SURF.
The program is meant to attract students – particularly those from underserved communities who have shown potential – to consider careers in oceanography, marine biology, earth science, or other marine-related sciences. If the program spurs them to enroll in graduate school, that’s a win too, Teranes said. Besides working in labs or performing field research with scientists, the students are briefed on how to apply for graduate school and other practical knowledge they would need to take the next step toward science careers.
“We are not necessarily looking for the most well-prepared students. We are looking for the students we feel will get the most out of it,” she said. “Although we know that not everyone in the program will want to go on for a Ph.D., we will say that we are extremely pleased that two former REU participants are now enrolled as Ph.D. students and that the REU program has already helped diversify our graduate student population.
Some, like University of Montana incoming senior Jasmine Gilleard, had the chance through SURF to study subjects unavailable to them at their own universities. Gilleard is an organismal and ecological biology major but University of Montana offers no courses in marine biology. At Scripps she helped Jennifer Taylor, an assistant marine biology professor, investigate the effects of ocean acidification on red rock shrimp. Since Taylor is herself fairly new as a Scripps professor, part of Gilleard’s job was to help Taylor set up her lab. In Gilleard’s eyes, the grunt work was actually a bonus real-world experience.
“I got to experience what it really would be like to work in a lab,” said Gilleard, who said she is now considering graduate study. “There’s no substitute for the real thing.”
– Robert Monroe
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